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Bugs in your Hair!


Now I know why Israeli Public Relations is such a disaster and we Jews keep on shooting ourselves in the foot. It is clearly a built in feature of our religion to make ourselves out to be bigger idiots than we really are.

I have written before about bugs and the industry that is developing in bug spotting machines and bug free foods. I pointed out that offensive as creepy crawling things might be, Jewish law, the halacha, expects one to take reasonable measures to check and clean fruit and vegetables. Nevertheless that which one cannot reasonably see with the naked eye, in pure halachic terms is not worth bothering about.

Now an American rabbi has decided that New York water contains microscopic creatures the naked eye cannot see and therefore one is not allowed to drink tap water. This issue was actually dealt with by the late and the same very great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein many years ago and it was agreed then that there was not a halachic problem (and the Health Authorities declared that there was not a health/medical problem either). I believe that paying inflated sums of money for bottled water is a scandal and symptomatic of how easily a fool and his money are parted. We have become victims of marketing and crafty salesmanship. Tap water is perfectly healthy and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the rabbi who wants it banned has probably got a contract with Perrier. As Jacky Mason has pointed out, give it a fancy French name and the suckers will just line up to buy canned fresh air.

The halacha itself is eminently sensible. But this checking for bugs in food and water is taking matters to absurd lengths and sadly it seems to put other considerations into the shade.

We also have this Indian Hair business. I believe the issue of modesty and covering hair is a very important one even though it is true fifty years ago in many orthodox rabbis wives did not cover their hair except with hats. The extremes of permissibility that our society has sunk to, call, I believe for greater vigilance nowadays, not less. But the wig (the sheitel in the vernacular) is, frankly, both halachically and otherwise something of an anomaly. By far the greatest weight of halachic opinion holds that a fancy sheitel ought to be covered in public. Indeed the really very frum don’t go in for sheitels at all and when they do they cover them up. The Charedi Leumi (the very religious Nationalists known as Chardal) in Israel strongly oppose sheitels as symbols of decadence and insist on scarves, snoods and other more modest and complete covering as indeed do Sepharadi authorities such as Rav Ovadiah Yosef. One too often sees sheitels on immodest bodies to be persuaded that the letter of the law is enough. Besides a religion that requires women to spend thousands of pounds on fancy fashion accessories that are simply ways of getting around a perfectly good law when that money could go to helping the undernourished and sick has clearly got its priorities wrong.

The recent scare over Indian Hair that has lead to the banning of thousands of hair pieces on the grounds that the hair has been dedicated to idolatry. As a result there have been bonfires of offending wigs. Some wig makers have lost their complete stock and gone out of business and others have cleaned out big time and made a real killing. Some do gooders have even set up a charitable free loan system especially for kosher wigs.

And all of this is over a total misconception both of Hinduism and the specific ceremony these hairs come from. In every religion you have fools (as Maimonides says in his introduction to Chelek) who take things literally when they shouldn’t. You have plenty of religious Jews who are superstitious. That doesn’t necessarily make them idol worshippers. Some still argue that Christianity is. Others such as the Maharal of Prague, the Tifferet Yisrael on the Mishna and the Nodah Biyehuda all say that Christianity is not idolatry because of its belief in Divine Intervention, something Hindus do too. Anyway the Talmud agrees that idolatry outside Israel is not the real thing and the great Meiri of Provence argued that idolatry is defined as lacking any moral code. Immoral Atheists ought to be a bigger problem than a saintly polytheist.

The procedure of the hair offered in India is closer to our idea of a Nazirite and is an act of self-denial akin to our fasting. If we are going to cast doubts about Hinduism we have just as strong a basis for criticising Christianity. By making an ill considered fuss all we have done is to offend our Hindu allies when we need every ally we can get in our increasingly scary battle against Muslim Fundamentalists who want to blow us all up because ironically they consider us the infidels! I wish religions would stop rubbishing each other and just get on with trying to make this world a better and safer place.

But what really upsets me is this. Within our religious communities there is absolutely amazing goodness, kindness, charity and support of a kind you simply will not find anywhere else. People I know who work within these closed communities tell me of the total dedication to helping the poor, the handicapped, the deprived and the disadvantaged way beyond anything seen even in middle of the road Jewish communities and welfare organisations. Yet the image they convey to the outside is of a sect of bug fearing, wig wearing obscurantists. This is as distorted a view as is the almost universal belief that the Palestinians are all peace loving victims and all Israelis sadistic oppressive aggressors. Why do we get our PR so consistently wrong?

The only comforting news this past week has been the trouble in the Shinto religion of Japan. It is dramatically split down the middle over an error in addressing the Emperor as His Imperial Highness instead of His Imperial Majesty. I guess all religions have their problems.

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2 thoughts on “Bugs in your Hair!

  1. I understand what you mean about the impression we give to society. It is for this reason that while in college i would never admit that i have a sheitel on, and why i paid a fortune for them. It has always puzzeled me that when looking at pictures of religous famililies from the second world war era, the women never covered their hair accept partialy with hats when they went out. I would say that it is probably the only part of being jewish that i have not come to terms with, although i have been married for 7 and a half years. I regret not having thought it through before my marriage, and it would now seem i’m stuck with a wig on my head for always. I think our religion is very corrupted in some areas.I’ve never seen an islamic woman with a wig on for a start.

  2. And indeed the Sephardi ( and the Shas) world totally disapprove of sheitels and prefer modest headcovering. I agree we have allowed the too many of the wrong considerations to win out. But on the other hand the sheitel was one example where female pressure in Europe actually forced the hands of many rabbis who still in principle thought a sheitel was a cop out!! What a shame that this ( like smoking) was an example of public pressure rather than say the Agunah issue.

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